Jennifer Stackpole remembers what it was like to dread gym class. It's hard to tell that about her now – she is a certified personal trainer with a master's degree in health and physical education. But memories of bowing out of athletics, not wanting to be the last person chosen, feeling awkward and uncoordinated in front of her peers still inform her.
The problem with gym class, she thought, is that it attempts to instill athletic skills in kids who have already chosen not to play sports.
That's why when she began teaching twelve years ago, Stackpole already had a vision to make gym class something better. This year, at , Stackpole and fellow teacher Jennifer Kohut debuted a new lifetime fitness and wellness class that students are saying helps those who are not involved in team sports stay active and reduce stress.
Kaitlyn Salisbury, 17, a senior, is now in her second semester of Stackpole's class and describes her first two years of physical education in exactly the same terms as Stackpole, who graduated from BHS in 1989.
“Typically in gym class you play a game and people get really competitive, which is to be expected, but I always found it kind of dumb that people would get that into it,” Salisbury said. “You have the option if you don't want to play the game to walk around the track. But how much can you walk? I would always end up just walking around, chewing gum. You get bored, and you end up from week to week exactly where you started.”
Salisbury said she uses the lifetime fitness and wellness class as an outlet to relieve stress.
“We are always so busy between jobs and school and extracurricular activities there's not a lot of time to sit down and think, how am I going to eat, work out, keep myself healthy both mentally and physically? This class kind of makes you sit down and think about how you are going to change your lifestyle around that goal,” Salisbury said.
Salisbury and fellow senior Ryan Bloomquist, 18, think this chronic hectic lifestyle might be why so many of their peers become out of shape and gain weight during high school.
According to statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics, rates of obesity in American children aged 12 to 19 rose from an average of five percent between 1976 to 1980 to an average of 18.1 percent between 2007 and 2008.
Stackpole and Kohut designed the curriculum to maximize exposure to various forms of working out, practical life skills such as strength training, and basic nutritional advice.
“I tell my students I want you to think of me as your personal trainer,” Stackpole said. “I have students who have lost considerable amounts of weight and are now working out to keep it off. I have students who have gone out and joined gyms or started taking yoga classes outside of school.”
She also brought in several guest instructors in zumba, pilates and yoga. Dr. Bruce Caldarone from Caldarone Chiropractic Center spoke about the connections between the average American diet and the country's average rates of epidemic disease. Leslie Kromhulz from the Women and Family Life Center in Guilford spoke about their programs and resources.
When she went before the with her fresh approach to physical education, Stackpole was nervous that enrollment would be so limited she couldn't make good on her rather progressive proposal.
“I was like why wouldn't they approve this, but at the same time, I wondered who is going to sign up for it?” she said.
Instead, nearly one third of the student body signed up the first semester it was offered. Enrollment had to be limited to juniors and seniors only, and most of those students stayed. About 90 percent of the class is female, Stackpole said, a trend she hopes will turn around as the class gains more of a reputation for providing challenging work-outs to both sexes.
Bloomquist, who is heavily involved in theater, has found the class helpful in both getting him in better shape physically and in teaching him body control techniques that he can use next year at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.
“Originally there was a misconception among everyone that this class would be all yoga and a sort of relaxation and meditation class, but what everyone has learned is that we are actually getting a great workout. I am working harder than I have in four years,” Bloomquist said.
Stackpole said one of her chief teaching goals was to instill life skills that her students would use in their college years and beyond. Teaching them to be self-sufficient at meal planning, using free weights and basic gym equipment, planning their own work outs and setting their own fitness goals, meditation, yoga and relaxation techniques.
The first step for many students who are all too used to chewing gum and walking the track at a leisurely pace, is creating a sense of ease with movement and equipment. The weight room at BHS, a dungeon-like basement space with little in the way of posted instructions for use of equipment, has long been considered by students the province of the football team or other school athletes. Stackpole and her students set out to change that notion and several students are inclined to go there on their own and pump weights with proper form, she said.
Stackpole said space is always an issue when teaching her classes. Her vision will be complete when students are not getting a work out before the work out actually begins by having to shift classroom furniture to the side of the room in order to make floor space available for yoga or pilates or another body weight work out.
She imagines that some day programs like hers will inspire school districts to convert space into full fitness centers with ample space for group classes and a full range of cardio machines for high school students, much like those they will encounter when they go off to college.
“I want the students to be able to come to the fitness center on their free period and work out, just like when the go to study hall, they can work on what they choose to,” she said.